In 2008-9, swathes of Icelanders took to the streets and ousted their government. Their anger was focused against their government’s attempt to socialize private banks’ debts after the financial crash nearly ruined Iceland. Through the peaceful uprising, dubbed the Pots and Pans Revolution, Icelanders experimented with democratic innovations and started envisioning a world beyond capitalism.
Achievements included direct democracy in municipal politics, new laws to protect journalists and whistle-blowers, and jail-time for bankers who committed financial crimes. However, not all innovations were fully realized, such as the country's crowd-sourced Constitution.
Will the revolution be networked?
To a large extent, business as usual continued and the global mainstream media neglected to report on Reykjavík's revolutionary moment. The under-coverage coincided with the ongoing period of expansion in digital and social media. By 2013, online news was matching the audience figures of traditional news. In 2014, figures showed over one in five people worldwide regularly used Twitter or Facebook. Last year, a study suggested that the majority of users rely on these sites for their news.
These statistics should be peppered with a pinch of salt. Facebook and Twitter, especially the former, are now part of the corporate establishment, and corporate news has gone digital. But it is clear from the growing global influence of non-corporate news platforms and digital networks that the revolution is, in fact, becoming networked. For example, reports about how Iceland jailed its bankers went viral,
In parallel with these trends, and assisted by online networks, the Movements of the Squares erupted in 2011 worldwide, from the Arab Spring to Spain’s 15M to Occupy Wall Street. These movements sought to learn from each other and spread innovations such as those attempted in Iceland. For instance, Icelanders shared tactics with Spanish activists before squares across Spain were taken on May 15 of that year.
Iceland's ongoing international role
Iceland for the last decade has become interwoven with another new digital phenomenon: the mass leaking and hacking of information. WikiLeaks began in 2006 in Reykjavík – the same city where, four years later, it published the video about the Iraq War, Collateral Murder, which launched the organization into global headlines.
In the 2009 Icelandic election, a new party formed from the Pots and Pans Revolution took four of 63 seats in the Alþingi (Parliament). The MPs included Birgitta Jónsdóttir, who in her first year as MP co-produced Collateral Murder. Birgitta also introduced legislation to protect whistle-blowing and journalistic freedom, called the International Modern Media Initiative (IMMI).
These laws effectively legalized and protected WikiLeaks and other hackers based on the notion that Iceland was a "safe haven for bytes." Since the laws were passed, many journalists have used servers in Iceland to protect themselves.
In 2013, Birgitta co-founded Iceland’s Pirate Party, which combines the Pirates' core global ethics of protecting Internet freedoms with an even stronger position toward direct democracy and human rights. The Icelandic Pirates were the first worldwide to achieve Parliamentary success, with Birgitta and two others successful in the 2013 elections. Over the last year, they have consistently remained at the top of Icelandic opinion polls – a positioned strengthened after the Panama Leaks.
In 2014, speaking to Occupy.com, Birgitta spelled out her idea for “rEvolution,” which included using direct democracy tools to share power, further protection for whistle-blowers, and pushing people’s empowerment. In the interview, she suggested another crisis for capitalism was likely, saying: “We will then be able to use the next crisis to offer real alternatives that are not alien to the general public.”
Her forecast, it seems, is coming to fruition.
In a joint statement issued by Birgitta and two other Pirate parliamentarians, the group remains consistent with their radical democracy plans. They are calling for national elections as soon as possible to continue the work of creating a crowd-sourced, people-driven constitution.
Their statement concludes: “We want to be the Robin Hood of power: We take away the power from the powerful and give it to the general public of Iceland. Our strongest weapons are our plans to enact a new constitution which has great democratic provisions, civil engagement tools such as the web platform ‘Better Iceland’.”
Several months ago, sparked by the release of the Panama Papers, mass protests again swept the nation, forcing out Icelandic Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson. The leaks implicated the prime minister and senior politicians not only in tax avoidance, but in helping engineer the response to the 2008 crisis in a way that suited their offshore interests. Like after the financial crash, Icelanders reacted swiftly to the news – but this time the consequences could be even more dramatic.
Speaking recently to Democracy Now, Birgitta stressed that today, during these transformational times, the Pirates and other innovators in Iceland are learning from global democracy movements – which in turn can also learn from Iceland.
Looking back at Iceland’s democratic innovations since 2009, we might take note how much further along these ideas have come – almost to the point that they are commonplace across Western capitalism. The radical municipalism of the Spanish state, and the democratic constitution-building process underway in Catalonia, are two key examples.
In Iceland itself, the Panama Papers may even push hackers to lead the country's next coalition government. Because in the eyes of many, the networked revolution is only getting started.